Michigan-Ohio St. faces uncertainty

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Since 1943, fans have always known where to find the annual showdown between Michigan and Ohio State: Right at the end of the schedule.

With the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams in 2011 and also going to divisional play and a conference championship game, that sacred spot is no longer a certainty.

"I can't sit here and say that it's going to be in place, or it's not going to be in place," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Tuesday of the traditional season-ending rivalry. "We did have meetings yesterday in Chicago and we'll have more meetings. We're still looking at a lot of different scenarios. We'll just have to wait and see how it plays out."

Many fans who hold dear the traditions of the rivalry are hoping for the status quo. Most don't want to let go of the finality of that late-November Saturday. "The Game," as it's called in much of the Midwest, was first played in 1897 and it's been played 106 times since.

Moving it to October could make "The Game" feel like just another game.

"I'd rather keep it as the last game," said ex-Michigan
quarterback Chad Henne, now with the Miami Dolphins. "There's
tradition there, and you always look forward to that last game."

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told ESPN.com Tuesday that the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry will be preserved in the league's new division alignment, which is about 80 percent complete and should be announced by mid-September. But, like Smith, Delany hinted that The Game could be moved earlier in the season.

"I would put Michigan-Ohio State among the top five events in all of sports for rivalry," Delany said. "It'll get played. Now the question is, how best to play it? Are they in the same divisions or are they not? Do they play in the last game, the second-to-last game, the third-to-last game? How to do that is still under discussion."

Delany noted that Ohio State and Michigan often have played for the right to go to the Rose Bowl, which would be lost if the teams were placed in the same division.

"You could make a good argument that Michigan and Ohio State should never really be playing for a divisional crown," Delany said. "If they're going to play, play for the right to go to the Rose Bowl. When Tennessee and Florida play, when Auburn and Alabama play, only one of those teams is going to go to the championship game because they're in the same division."

Wisconsin AD and former football coach Barry Alvarez said every effort is being made to preserve the biggest traditional rivalry
game at each school, but otherwise competitive balance will determine how the Big Ten divides into divisions.

"We're all going to protect one rivalry, we've decided that and we're going right back to what we've talked about, competitive
equality," Alvarez said. "If you stick with that, you can get close [to guessing the divisions]."

If the Buckeyes and Wolverines are in different divisions, that could set up two meetings in some seasons. Wouldn't that detract from the win-or-else nature of the rivalry?

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon believes that it would be enhanced.

"We're in a situation where one of the best things that could happen in my opinion in a given season would be the opportunity to play Ohio State twice, once during the regular season and once for the championship of the Big Ten," he told a Detroit radio audience earlier this month.

Fans are loyal to college football because it is built on its tried and true traditions. From Chief Osceola at Florida State to Southern California's Traveler to Touchdown Jesus at Notre Dame, the sport is rich ties to the past.

"Every time we make a move, we want to maintain the best of traditions as best we can," Delany told ESPN.com. "We're not going to be able to maintain every detail on every tradition, but it is foundational. We also have to continue to innovate . . . We're not fan-insensitive, we're fan-receptive and are only interested in doing what is going to grow our fan base. We saw the loss of the Nebraska-Oklahoma game as not only a loss for Nebraska and Oklahoma; we saw it as somewhat of a loss for college football. So we're not losing the Ohio State-Michigan game."

And it's not just fans of the Wolverines and Buckeyes who might feel as if tradition is being cast aside.

Purdue and Indiana have fought over the Old Oaken Bucket since 1925. Minnesota and Iowa for Floyd of Rosedale -- a bronze pig, no less -- since 1935, and Michigan State and Indiana over the Old Brass Spittoon since 1950. And what of Illibuck, the Purdue Cannon, Sweet Sioux Tomahawk and Paul Bunyan's Axe, all prizes of longtime Big Ten trophy games?

So all of those games might not be played every season.

"We may have 15 trophy games, rivalry games that are in that same number," Delany said. "We'll need to do everything we can to preserve those. Whether or not we'll be 100 percent able to preserve every trophy game or every rivalry game ..."

In a conference that has held on to its traditions more than any other, this could be jolting.

"Change is tough," Smith said somberly. "At the end of the day, I don't know what change we'll have. Even if we have Michigan at the end of the schedule, there's still going to be change. I don't know what it's going to be. But I'm looking at a number of different scenarios and there's change in all of them."

Information from The Associated Press and ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg was used in this report.